CodeDS/UK/1
Person NameCullen; William (1710-1790); Professor; physician; chemist
Dates1710-1790
TitleProfessor
Epithetphysician; chemist
HistoryCullen was born in 1710. He received a good literary education at Hamilton Grammar School and from there he went to Glasgow and attended some classes at the university. He was bound apprentice to Mr John Paisley of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons. When his apprenticeship was over Cullen, aged 19, went to London to enlarge his medical experience.

When his elder brother died, his father being already dead, he had to return to Scotland to see to the education of his younger brothers and sisters. After nearly two years he came into a small legacy and he resolved to further his education before going into practice in Hamilton. He attended the winter sessions of 1734-35 and 1735-36 classes in Edinburgh, including the anatomy lectures of Monro Primus. Early in 1736 Cullen returned to Hamilton from Edinburgh and set up a practice there nominally as a surgeon.

Although his practice in Hamilton flourished, Cullen must have realised that a small town did not provide full scope for his talents. He moved to Glasgow in the autumn of 1744 at the age of 34 and gave extramural lectures in medicine immediately on his arrival. Then in 1746, with the approval of the professor of medicine, he gave his lectures at the university and changed the professorship from a titular sinecure to a teaching post. He also gave lectures in chemistry, materia medica and botany. He broke new ground at Glasgow by lecturing in English but adhered to Latin in his botany lectures; Latin facilitated the use of the system of classification that had been recently introduced by the great Swedish botanist, Linnaeus. Throughout his time in Glasgow Cullen gave lectures and practical demonstrations in chemistry. Among his pupils was Joseph Black who was to become the foremost chemist in Britain.

Henry Home, a lawyer who owned a country estate, knew Cullen through a common interest in agricultural chemistry. He had been encouraging him for some years to move to Edinburgh. In the early summer of 1755 the professor of chemistry at Edinburgh, Andrew Plummer, had a stroke. This incapacitated him temporarily but there was uncertainty about whether or not he could recover in time to give his lectures in the next winter. This uncertainty led to canvassing as to who should succeed him. In September Home wrote a letter to the Duke of Argyll asking him to recommend the appointment of Cullen to the chair. Soon after, the Duke was in Edinburgh and used his influence with the Town Council. In November Cullen was appointed joint Professor with Plummer. In fact Plummer never taught again and died in the following summer when Cullen was appointed sole Professor.

The extent and scope of his experience as a lecturer is shown by the number of subjects in which he gave the main course of university lectures and for how many years. Chemistry (12 years at Glasgow and 10 at Edinburgh), botany (2 years at Glasgow), physiology (5 years in Edinburgh), theory of medicine and practice of medicine (5 and 18 years in Edinburgh).

The lectures formed the bases for three books much appreciated by students and translated into European languages. These were Institutions of Medicine Part 1 Physiology, 1772; First Lines on the Practice of Physic in four parts published between 1777 and 1784; and Treatise of the Materia Medica, 1789. Cullen's first book, Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae, was published for the use of his students in 1769. It provided a new classification of diseases. The background to the book was the publication in 1735 by Linnaeus of his Systema Naturae, in which plants were classified into genera and species; this was a landmark in the history of biology.

Cullen had two distinct practices, a consulting one and a hospital one at the Royal Infirmary. A large part of the consulting one was by correspondence, at first mainly from patients or their doctors in Scotland, but later in England and, such was his reputation, a few from continental Europe and the USA. Cullen's reputation as a physician arose because he was seen to treat each one as individual, to give practical advice and always to be helpful and encouraging, yet giving no false hopes.

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